Are Japanese Houses Worthless?

Japanese architecture can be pretty damn cool. Architects all over Japan design some very beautiful and unique buildings that catch the attention and imagination of people all around the world.

But there’s a flipside to Japanese architecture too. Turns out, as I recently read on Reddit, Japanese houses become very worthless very quickly.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not using “worthless” as a derogatory term; I mean that according to one study, Japanese houses literally lose all their value after about 15 years.

Not only that, but the same study also says that the average Japanese house lasts a mere 30 years. Considering some houses last for hundreds of years, Japan’s average seems pretty low.

This doesn’t make any sense at first. Lots of Japanese creations have a reputation for longevity (temples that have lasted hundreds of years), and it’s the exact opposite of how things work in a lot of the rest of the world. In the U.S., houses are supposed to be an investment that appreciate over time.

How did this happen? Where does all the value go?

Why Are Japanese Houses So Worthless?

Like anything, everybody has their own theory about why Japanese houses lose their value so quickly.

Unique Conditions

Some people argue that Japan has a unique climate that makes it harder to make houses that last. Japan faces high humidity, typhoons, earthquakes, and freezing winters, and that just makes it too hard to make a house last for very long

But of course, that’s to be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. After all, Japan isn’t the only place in the world with weather like that. It’s not as if is Japan is unique in having to deal with different, sometimes extreme weather conditions.

Crappy Design

Another and, in my mind, more credible theory, is that a lot of Japanese houses just aren’t built that well.

Anybody who’s been to Japan in the winter knows how bad the weatherproofing in Japanese houses can be. Double-paned windows aren’t common, insulation is usually lacking, and the walls can be thin, leading to freezing temperatures inside that aren’t much better than the weather outside.

Across the world, there are more and more institutions like LEED and Passivhaus are focused on making buildings energy efficient, but Japan seems to be standing still.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Many houses aren’t earthquake-proof and, in an earthquake-prone country like Japan, that’s a big problem. When earthquakes happen, these houses can be damaged beyond repair.

All of these factors rolled up together raises the question – why are these homes built so poorly?

Planned Obsolescence

Some people (like Dogs And Demons’ Alex Kerr) subscribe to the theory that the government-subsidized Japanese construction industry builds a lot of things just for the sake of building them, and that function and longevity are at most, afterthoughts.

In other places, this wouldn’t be possible, but because of lax government regulation, in Japan it’s not only possible, but commonplace. Why build something expensive and meant to last when you could construct something cheaply?

Sometimes it seems like Japanese people prefer new houses anyway. An astonishing 86.9% of new homes sold in Japan are brand new. This is the exact opposite of a lot of western countries. In the US, only 22.4% of homes sold are new, 11.2% in the UK and 33.6% in France.

Given that, it’s hard to tell whether Japan’s love of new houses is because of shoddy construction, or just because people want new houses. It’s like asking which came first – the chicken, or the egg?

Hope Ahead

Fortunately though, it’s not all bad news. Some home buyers are beginning to be more discerning about the quality of houses, and more builders are catching on and improving their standards.

So while Japanese houses still lag behind many other parts of the world, that’s beginning to change. Do you see this change in Japan? Have any stories about Japanese homes and how well they’re built? Tell me in the comments!


Header photo by Seb

  • simplyshiny

    Hey, that picture of reality signs was taken near me…or at least in the general vicinity…I don’t know why that excited me.  Anywau, I love Japanese architecture, if I build a house, I’d love to build it in that style….well, with insulation and good windows and all…

  • ジョサイア

    Is that how Godzilla knocked over Tokyo tower so many times?

  • Tom Case

    I learned a new word today: Obsolescence… That alone made this post worth it. Damn that’s a good word.

  • Hinoema

    I’ve got a design I may never get to try, but it’s essentially a traditional Japanese home in a U shape, but the outermost wall is a thick adobe with a gated wall across the front of the U. Elegance inside, insulation, sturdiness and privacy outside!

  • http://profiles.google.com/blukat99 Julie Helmi

    I love older Japanese houses but some of those were built by hand and made to last longer. However if a person doesn’t take care of a building it will eventually decay.

    I wonder how much of the not so good building has been due to the fact that so often things were destroyed by earthquakes, fire, storms and more in Japan that they felt it wasn’t worth putting a lot of effort into construction? Even most of the great castles ended up being destroyed. However I have learned that tile roofs came about to protect from fire so it wasn’t all neglected. But then could the idea of impermanence be another reason? While yes other countries do have bad weather and all, in Japan there is the thought of how life is transitory.

    Have you looked into housing in other Asian countries? Perhaps that might be an interesting thing to look at since I don’t remember most housing being built to last either.

  • Jackson

    I think your argument is a bit lacking in thought.  You correctly note that Japanese houses are different than the houses in many other places in the world, but then you reflexively label it as “lacking” and “inferior”.  It is normal to see anything that is different as automatically bad, but it is our duty as intelligent beings to consider things from all sides, without bias.  
    Have you considered that maybe there are some benefits to the Japanese system?  Making many quick, simple, cheap houses lets everyone get access to them at low cost.  It insures that many are moving into new, clean, modern houses without years of buildup of mold and bacteria that plague our western domiciles.  
    Have you heard of “sick-building syndrome”?  Have you ever looked inside a wall of a hundred year old house?  There are feces, mold, dust, dirt, animals.  It is really horrible.  
    The concept of making simple quick houses that can easily be dismantled and refreshed is not really a bad one.  In fact it has many positives.  
    This whole system is not even that hard to understand if you are familiar with Japanese customs.  Even these old historic buildings are made to be periodically dismantled and reconstructed.  They don’t use nails or permanent fastenings, but instead just slot constructions that let the buildings elements be held together by gravity.  It is all part of an ethic of temporality and rebirth that is part and parcel of the Japanese way.  

  • Mescale

    Japanese people tend to believe in bad spirits and stuff hanging around in old houses. As such old houses are not generally desirable to the Japanese market.

    I think this creates a need to create ‘cheap disposable houses’.

    This in turn leads to a lot less value attached to a house, for the people who live there and have grown up with their new house it means something special, but to others its just a junky house with other people’s hopes and memories tied within it.

  • Noah Hicks

    天下り.

  • ZZ

     I might also add a few things. 

    The idea of an earthquake-proof house is a little disingenuous. There’s no such thing. There’s earthquake resistance and it’s generally evolving. The learned a lot from the Kobe quake, and they are improving drop ceiling after the march quake (now it was internals not houses falling apart). I’m not sure the “earthquake-proof” California has learned in the last 20 years is far ahead of Japan (if at all). Also, there is something to be said for a houses that fall apart in an earthquake. One of the old adages that occasionally gets bandied about is that a wood and paper (light) house, falling on you is still safer then a brick house (heavy) house.

    Certainly modern builders are incorporating more efficiencies into the design, and that in itself might be a factor. If your paying massively for a piece of land, the cost of a house upgrade might be worth it.

    Finally, I’ve always wondered about our own valuing of houses. Building equity only tends to pay off once you sell the house. Until then you are either putting money into the house, or losing it in taxes as you increase the value. In my view, if I have a house I want to pass it on to the next generation so they can have a (relatively–taxes aside) rent free place to live. In that case, I’d never be cashing out on the equity.

  • Jgh

    To make the finances add up, continuously replacing houses with new houses means they get smaller and smaller and more and more expensive.
    When I bought my home in the UK in 1992 I couldn’t afford a new house, they were twice as small and twice as expensive as my 1885 house. Some of the new builds around me built in the last few years have had to have almost as much spent on them in remedial work – one block of flats had the gable wall blown off less than a year after it was completed. My house has been sitting here happily for 130 years.

  • http://twitter.com/erictimmer Eric Timmer

    There is a new law that houses must be designed to last at least 30 years.  

  • bluuuuuuuurb

    I live in a house that was probably built in the 70s. I’ve moved in recently during the spring, but I know the winters are bitterly cold in my area. I’ve known other people who have had to live in homes not insulated, and woken up to a layer of ice in the toilet bowl and frozen pipes. Plus, most people use kerosene heaters, which means they can’t seal their windows (with plastic for example to keep out the cold) because they need to vent the room every couple of hours due to the fumes. 

    I think that’s why Japan is so big on kairos (those chemical warmers that activate when exposed to air. They even have versions that stick to you) and hot water bottles. Oh, and Snuggies.   

  • bluuuuuuuurb

    (sorry, I live in a house in Japan)

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Well, still last longer than the Ise Grand Shrine, I guess. By, like, 10 years…

  • Watarimono

    I think Japanese houses are the equivalent of our mobile home industry here in the USA which are built to last approximately 20-30 years tops, which means they are just like cars when you buy them they immediately lose value. They run down a fall apart easily.  

  • David Lewis

    If that’s true, could you go can check if that strange pink/purple/blueish cord by the foot of the pole is still there and then confirm its color?

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I’m not a fan of Japanese houses in general.
    Most of them are ugly and the bad insulation is horrible.
    Good thing I don’t plan to buy a house here in Japan, but I know quite a few people who did….

  • simplyshiny

    Sure, I’d love to. Would you like a soil sample as well?

  • Aquariia

    Are we talking here about traditional houses only or modern houses are also build cheaply?
    I like Japanese traditional houses but I can imagine having such house only as summer house. Btw. Aren’t US hauses also poor designed? Long time ago I’ve watched some show about rebuilding US Houses and man was able to make a hole in the wall by the hammer. 

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Yeah, better send it back to forensics.

  • FoxiBiri

    I think the idea of structures that can easily be assembled and disassembled is an ideal one, and I agree with you that this kind of system obviously prevents house-sickness and promotes a healthy sort of growth and urban renewal. However many houses in Japan aren’t very energy-efficient and are quite dangerous to live in. 
    For example, the house I lived in in Tokyo was at the end of long side street. Of the four old houses that were built on that street two of them succumbed a fire started in only one of the houses and were burnt to the ground. I never knew the families that lived in those houses but I could imagine the devastation they faced after their home and belongings were lost. The fire itself was somehow earthquake related. 
    As for my house, and hundreds of thousands of other Japanese houses, any extremes in weather were brutal due to poor insulation. I shutter to think of how much energy is wasted each year in Japan because exterior walls are so thin, it’s like blasting the AC when all your windows are open.
    There has to be a middle ground somewhere. Japan isn’t wrong to build such semi-permenant structures, but hopefully each new building is built with safer, more fire-proof material , and some sort of lightweight insulation so that keeping warm or cool isn’t so much of an environmental struggle.
    But yeah I doubt by house will be standing in 10 years. 
      

  • Jheri Kost

    That house looks like its real a fixer-upper, for sure — but it’s totally worth the effort when Totoro lives next door.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I haven’t looked into other Asian countries, but that would be an interesting comparison to make.

  • crowbark

     Ah, but the trick is whether the wall keeps the heat in and the cold out, or vice versa, at least before you put the hammer through it. There’s a lot of cheap new American construction that’s crap in other ways and won’t last, but it meets certain standards about insulation properties that mean it’s a lot more comfortable to live in, and cheaper to heat and cool.

  • David Lewis

    Who knows what we could…
    B-[
    …dig up.

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    If you want to get into an interesting discussion about home construction, get an American and an Australian together and start talking about what the walls are made out of.

    > Double-paned windows aren’t common

    I hope not.  Double-pane windows went out with disco.  Modern windows are triple-pane, and have been since the eighties.  (Granted, there are still a lot of older homes out there with double-pane windows in them — at least in the US there are.)

    > insulation is usually lacking

    A lot of US homes are rather lacking in the insulation department too.

    > Many houses aren’t earthquake-proof

    Wait, *houses* need to be earthquake proof?  

    I did not know that.  I always assumed it was only really a problem for tall buildings, like in big cities.  (I may be a trifle naive about earthquakes.  I still remember the one back in the eighties that two or three of my friends claimed that they felt.  I think it was a four point something.)

    But my real question is, how can people in Japan afford new houses?  Aren’t the real estate prices over there insanely high?  That’s what I’d always heard, illustrated with horror stories about hundred-and-fifty-year mortgages that people pass on to their grandchildren.  Is that just a load of bunk?

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    Sure, you can put a hole in the drywall with a hammer.  So what?  Drywall is purely superficial.  It’s made to hold paint or wallpaper, so your room looks nice.  It’s not part of the structure of the building.  You can rip out the drywall and replace it.  More interestingly, you can easily cut out a small rectangle and install new flush-mounted fixtures any time you want — so for example if your house was built in the days before cheap home networking, you can retrofit ethernet cabling and it doesn’t look ugly or stick out so you bang your shins on it.

  • simplyshiny

    I’ll get right on that for you

  • Steve

    I read once in ancient times Japanese used to build their houses poorly as when they get damaged in typhoon they can rebuild them easily. Strong pillars and roof that wont fall down, and walls that get blown away all over the place. Then the community would start the rebuild.

  • Samurai Jack

    This article’s written by someone who doesn’t understand East Asian culture. Most traditional Asian families prefer their major purchases new (i.e. houses and cars). There’s an unspoken aversion towards purchasing things used like houses that belonged to others due to several reasons that stem back to superstitions. If the previous owner committed sins or passed away at said house, his spirit would linger and no one would want that right?! Even when families inherit houses from their parents, they would often go about remodeling the house etc. 

    Also, no matter how well you construct a house, it’s almost impossible to be fully earthquake proof (unless you have the money to shell out for bunker type basements etc.)

    Japanese houses aren’t worthless. It’s just that their values differ and some people are just fine with constructing a new house every 30 years (or roughly one family cycle) etc.

  • http://www.facebook.com/w00dynz Matthew Wood

    Ummm I hope you are being facetious with your triplepaned comment… jap houses are singlepaned

  • Aquariia

    I guess I get used to solid European Houses. :P 

  • yumiko

    This is so true haha, one of the times i was in beppu i was in the middle of a nice warm shower trying to warm myself up from my cold room .. i started to hear some cracking sound behind me and turned around discovering that tiles were practically peeling off the wall =.=”

  • Lyr

     Only Japanese houses aren’t cheap – they’re usually insanely expensive. If you have a house – a real house, not an apartment or condo as is often the norm in Japan – then that means that you have money to burn.

  • RaikouNeko

    I read an article in the Japan Times that the reason the homes aren’t weatherproofed is because there isn’t a requirement for insulation at all. The only prefecture that requires insulation is Hokkaido (only exterior walls), but considering certain parts of Japan also experience extreme cold…I don’t know – I guess in the States, we’re used to having homes that maintain temperature well? My father designed my house (very rare, I know) and he did something uncommon – he put insulation in every wall of the house. Because of this, when we loose power, my house is able to maintain a bearable temperature for much longer.

  • Caldoria

    I have long wondered if there was a tie to shinto.  I understand shrines
    may be rebuilt relatively frequently.  Impurity is a big deal.  Often
    religion and tradition has a good reason for things, even if the
    original understanding was very unclear.  Impurity can be in reality
    truly bad things–the things that build up in houses over time.  We in
    the west aren’t as paranoid about this stuff, but we are becoming more
    so with microscopes and understanding. 

    It is problematic in practice, though.  A new house costs a lot of
    money!! And it is wasteful.  I have  read that the Japanese are the same when it comes to other products, like appliances.  It seems for good or bad this is a way to
    “Stimulate the economy”.

    While foreign isn’t always bad, I don’t, even with my great respect for Japanese culture respect all aspects of it.

  • hijoesan

    Theyre not crappily designed or constructed. Watch a house go up. They are put together like a piece of furniture; dovetail and mortise & tennon joints, lots of cyprus and cedar (nice smell!), lots of cement (exterior walls) and tile (roof). Our house was about 20 yrs old, & yeah, walls were insulated but not attic so I insulated that myself. Yeah, single pane windows, but they have real metal sliding shutters and the climate isnt like it is here in Wisc.
    We moved back to the US and had a house built. Bam bam bam went the nail guns, squirt out a bunch of Liquid Nails, lots of chip board, vinyl siding & windows, and spindly 2x4s, all the sudden there is a house!

  • hilldomain

    No not true- a used house is cheaper than a new condo or even the cheaper than a used condo in the same area and you own the land. Condos are way over priced right now. Which is the same problem they had in the 80′s – too many overpriced condos that ended up inflating the market. People dont buy houses because they dont want to maintain them. They dont buy used houses because of fear of earthquakes. But a larger percentage of Japanese people own their own home in the country than the city of course.

    Which brings me to my next point. Houses aren’t built to last for a few reasons. 1. the codes change and especially the ones for earthquake resistance. 2. builders build to code which is like getting a grade of C – they should build beyond the codes but its cost prohibitive. Japanese houses even new ones are cheap compared to America. Try buying a house in one of the 5 burrows of NYC for $600,000. in a safe neighborhood with schools. Want to cut that number in half? buy a house ore than 25 years old. There is no tie to Shintoism or any other religious reason. Buildings used to be built to last back in the day and maintained. One reason I believe is the lack of quality craftsmen as opposed to in the past and the change from traditional building to more western, engineered product based building- you need to have a specialist in each area to install each component.

  • brainburst

    I have been coming back and forth over the last ten years with my wife who is native Japanese, and owns her own home. Japanese construction is shoddy. Period. Having dealt first hand with a number of “Home Reform” businesses first hand, i have experienced rapacious prices ,shoddy workmanship and materials. The practices you refer to are not common place at all, reserved for bespoke construction for the very rich.

  • brainburst

    Korean homes are built better with much better insulation.

  • Moogiechan

    I wonder if the energy crunch from having all the reactors down will make people more interested in insulation and energy efficiency in general in homes.

    On a tangent, I know someone whose family home in Japan is on leased land and must be torn down and completely removed when they stop leasing the land.